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8.557418-19 - BRIAN: Symphony No. 1, 'The Gothic'

Havergal Brian (1876-1972)

Havergal Brian (1876-1972)

Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’ (1919-1927)


The life and works of Havergal Brian constitute the strangest phenomenon in twentieth-century British music. A contemporary of Vaughan Williams and Holst, he was born in 1876, to working-class parents, in the Staffordshire Potteries: the kind of background from which, in those days, major creative artists simply did not come. He left school at twelve and started work, for a coal mine, for timber firms, and as a carpenter’s apprentice, but he had a good if haphazard musical education and, filled with an unquenchable desire to write music, he persisted against all odds throughout a very long and often hard life. He died at Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, in 1972 at the age of 96. For roughly eighty of those years he had been composing, one of the longest creative careers ever. He had known sudden success (in the 1900s), then personal crisis, social rejection, hard times, disappointment, and, for most of his last fifty years, obscurity. He was never absolutely forgotten, and his music won acclaim from, among others, Elgar, Tovey, and Richard Strauss, but he was commonly regarded as one of the generation that had had their chance, and failed to justify it, before World War I.


Since the 1950s there has been a spasmodic, but unmistakeable, growth of interest in Havergal Brian’s music. His First Symphony, however, The Gothic, remains his most famous work, some might say his most notorious, on account of its length and the gigantic forces employed, which have earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records under “Largest Symphony”. Nevertheless it is in many ways his most personal and crucial work, the one that cost him most in the writing, the massive keystone of his copious creative œuvre. Before it came his songs and choral works, short orchestral pieces and the satirical opera The Tigers; after it came the long line of Symphonies Nos. 2 - 32, none of them on the same scale as The Gothic, but all affected by the experience of writing it.


Brian seems to have composed The Gothic at various times through a period of seven or eight years, and he was over fifty when he completed it. It unites two long-contemplated schemes, a work on Goethe’s Faust and a setting of the Te Deum, in a symphonic vision of the Gothic Age (1150 - 1560) as a period of almost unlimited expansion of human knowledge, both secular and spiritual, both glorious and terrible. The first three movements, for large orchestra, form Part I, which relates in a general way to Goethe’s Faust, Part 1 (Faust as the archetypal Gothic-Age man, seeker after hidden knowledge and aspiring mystic). In a sense, however, Part 1 is only a prelude. The fourth, fifth and sixth movements constitute Part II, twice the length of Part I, and here Brian’s inspiration was the mighty Gothic cathedral and the music that was sung in it. Part II is a gigantic setting of the Te Deum for four soloists, two large double choruses, brass bands, and a much enlarged orchestra. The score’s requirements, taken literally, of 32 woodwind, 24 brass, two timpanists, percussion needing seventeen players, celesta, two harps, organ, and an enlarged string section, outdo the most extreme demands of Mahler, Strauss or Schoenberg. In addition, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, two tubas and one timpanist are specified for each of the four extra brass bands: a total of nearly 200 players. It attempts a new, freely evolving conception of structure while making use of the widest possible range of stylistic resources, spanning a great arch from neo-medieval vocal polyphony to shattering brass outbursts of purely twentieth-century barbarity. The work is also a tribute to all the music that Brian had known and loved, and all the people he cared about. ‘This work’, he wrote to his friend Granville Bantock on 27th June 1926, ‘has been inside my heart for a lifetime and naturally there is inside it all those who have been very dear to me - who helped and moulded me’. On another occasion he spoke of the fifth movement as his personal memorial to Hans Richter, whose conducting of the Hallé Orchestra had been such an inspiration to Brian in his youth. The Gothic, then, is an acknowledgement of debts to the past, and a manifesto for the future, a massive reaffirmation of the idealism of the English musical renaissance, which had been so cruelly shaken by the 1914-18 War, to which its moments of violence and terror seem directly to relate. Three different levels of musical argument, dramatic, tonal, motivic, create the work’s musical logic. On the expressive plane Part I is dynamic in the familiar symphonic sense, a demonstration of artistic continuity with the recent past, a logical development from the achievements of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Elgar and early Schoenberg. Part II, however, is cultural drama, an evocation of the totality of Western Music around one great familiar unifying text. From the doubt whether the post-1918 world will respond to such heroic idealism stems the individual drama of the artist, who is heard still praying for the strength to continue in ever more personal tones as the Te Deum moves to its racked and agonized but not-quite-despairing conclusion.


The score is prefaced by two lines in German from Goethe’s Faust:


He who ever strives with all his might

That man we can redeem


The entire work is sustained by a simple yet original tonal plan, whose principal feature is the overall move from an initial D minor to a final E major. The vast array of melodies and figures heard in the work, many of them, especially in the Te Deum, heard only once, for all their variety, are unified into huge ‘families’ of related ideas through their inheritance of common characteristics: just as an entire Gothic cathedral may be built from an innumerable series of bays with the same basic form of rib-vaulting, though the actual proportions of every bay may be different.


Part I, the purely orchestral movements, are the finest ‘pure’ music Brian had yet written. Within themselves they display a steadily increasing mastery which builds to a stunning climax in the third movement. The first movement [1] opens with a superb orchestral gesture that was to haunt Brian in many guises for the rest of his career. There ensues a modified sonata form, with a terse, wiry first subject and a more lyrical ‘folk-like’ second idea, announced by a solo violin [2]. The contrast between these two themes is extreme, and foreshadows Brian’s later love of the unexpected juxtaposition and the apparent non sequitur. A tough development section [3] seizes fragments of these, while the orchestration shows the first signs of a fantastic, haunted quality that will be much exploited later. The space-filling second subject tune is replaced by a briefer, simpler theme, hinted at just before the recapitulation starts with a beautiful violin cadenza [4], which recalls the original second subject and is heard more fully afterwards. Recapitulation and coda are thereafter all rushing excitement, and the first grandiose entry of the organ is a coup de théâtre which Brian reserves for the final bars.


The slow second movement [5], a grand processional in 5/4 time, is Brian’s first totally mature and personal symphonic statement. Two main elements, a dotted-note rhythm on tubas and timpani at the outset, and a noble, subtly flexible march-melody stated by violas and cellos immediately afterwards, are developed both in association and in competition. The music passes through some strange territory [6] and rises to great climactic statements of the march theme. The last of these [7] is a passage of granitic splendour. This final climax subsides suddenly into the shadows, and after a softly reminiscent coda for horns and tubas, a bass clarinet leads directly into the third movement [8], a Vivace scherzo-finale for Part I, which ranks among Brian’s greatest symphonic inspirations. After a sinister opening paragraph over a rushing Brucknerian ostinato, the movement begins to develop through a series of contrasted episodes at different speeds, which slowly disclose a huge, relentless, underlying momentum. The principal motif is turned into a mysterious, glowing horn-call, and becomes a base for stormy developments [9]. Eventually the accumulated tension gathers to a head in a violent, warlike development full of march-and-fanfare images [10]. Then, in an astonishing passage, the movement acquires, instead of any recapitulation, a further, fantastic development, weirdly scored [11], with a bizarre xylophone cadenza [12] that is eventually sucked into a skirting polytonal ostinato. A figure of four descending trombone pedal-notes, already heard at various points, now enters on all the low brass instruments to force tonal movement, and the music crashes into a thundering climax [13] that is the logical culmination of the earlier battlefield imagery. There is a crushingly decisive cadence, and then a coda of unexpected calm ensues [14]. The mysterious horn-call is heard for the last time and the music mounts to a fast shimmering triad of D major.


Part II is the huge three-movement Te Deum. Here Brian employs the full forces in the most disparate kinds of music, and the text itself becomes a unifying force, relating the various musics to the central stream of thought. The first movement, the fourth in the symphony’s over-all scheme, is concerned with praise and statements of the acts and nature of God. The radiant opening [15] introduces first the choruses, then the vocal soloists. After a big orchestral fanfare [16], the full forces are unleashed in a fantastic, bell-like heterophony of multitudinous rejoicing [17]. Then the usual kinds of thematic development are abandoned, and the music evolves through a, series of contrasting episodes which manage nevertheless to impose a formal logic on the treatment of the next.


The fifth movement sets just one line of text: ‘Judex crederis esse venturus’ (We believe that Thou shalt come to be our judge). It opens with a very bold stroke: the four choirs singing in overlapping triads, creating dense, glowing ‘chord-clusters’ [CD 2 [1]]. The solo soprano sings the complete text, and then the choirs launch into a polyphonic passage of fantastic complexity and fierce dissonance, divided into over twenty parts. A wordless vocalise for solo soprano introduces a thrilling fanfare for trumpets [2], and then the orchestra enters for the first time in the movement with a grim juggernaut of a march [3]. After this the four choruses, each supported by a separate brass band, proclaim the text in different ways with intervening orchestral refrains [4]. A vigorous orchestral development follows [5], more brightly scored and optimistic in mood, but gradually becoming more intense. Eventually the voices join in again [6] with a mysterious accumulation of polyphonic lines that builds steadily to the movement’s final climax - a thunderous outpouring of sound from the full forces.


The sixth movement is the longest of all, and the one that contains the greatest contrasts of material, expression and scoring. The text is largely concerned with statements of praise and prayers for the future already adumbrated so darkly in the previous movement. A solo oboe d’amore introduces a floridly expressive tenor solo [7]. After the line ‘Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria numerari’, a kind of celestial dance begins in the orchestra [8], brilliantly and brightly scored, with wordless participation from the choirs. The solo soprano sings the same line [9], and the dance continues. Gradually Brian builds up the most texturally complex passage in the whole symphony. The outcome is a huge climax for the full forces. ‘Salvum fac populum tuum’ [10] brings a return to antiphonal chanting of the kind heard in the fourth movement. This is troubled, anxious music, but another joyful and glittering passage, for women’s voices and orchestra, ensues at ‘Et benedic...’ [11]; the men take over grandly at ‘Et rege eos’ [12], and children’s voices smoothly and sweetly at ‘Per singulos dies...’. Now a jaunty marching song is heard on nine clarinets, supported by percussion [13]. More wordless vocalising follows [14]. This introduces a joyously tuneful setting of ‘Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum’ [15], which builds to a roof-raising climax of forthright, strongly rhythmic splendour. After a tremendous culmination the clarinet march returns as a kind of recessional. The mood now darkens for an anguished, imploring bass aria, ‘Dignare, Domine, die isto’ [16], followed by a beautiful, quietly supplicatory double-fugue exposition for choirs alone, its subject harking back to the opening of the symphony [17]. There is a melancholy E minor cadence, after which all Hell is let loose. The full brass of orchestra and bands, with six timpanists and much percussion, unleash two diabolically dissonant assaults upon the ear [18], and provoke two agonized choral cries of ‘Non confundar in aeternum’. The joyous visions of the earlier parts of the Te Deum have vanished into utter darkness [19]. The profoundly moving coda, with its impassioned cello line [20] is as desolate a cry from the depths as any in music. The final choral murmur of ‘Non confundar in aeternum’ [21], in E major, is serene and unaffected, a far-off, mysterious radiance that ‘abides as a light in the night’.


Malcolm MacDonald

Edited by Keith Anderson

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